Here’s a happy little holiday thought: You’re going to die. Don’t know when, don’t know how, but it’s going to happen. One second you could be driving along in your brand-new hearse singing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” to yourself and lighting up a smoke. The next, you’re being T-boned into oblivion by a city bus. In an instant, you’re dead. Deceased. Defunct. Departed. Assumed room temperature.
That’s how it went down for the patriarchal head of Fisher & Sons Funeral Home in the premiere episode of Six Feet Under (HBO, Wednes-days), the critically drooled-over series that finally began repeating last week. Mortician Nathaniel Fisher (Richard Jenkins, who still drops in via dreams from beyond the grave, à la Providence) was killed on Christmas Eve en route to pick up his home-for-the-holidays son Nate (Peter Krause), who escaped the family business years ago. Now, with overwrought mom Ruth (Frances Conroy), closet gay brother David (Michael C. Hall) and wild-child younger sister Claire (Lauren Ambrose) in full-tilt mental meltdown, Nate is forced back into the fold to help keep Fisher & Sons—here comes the pun—alive.
When Six Feet Under originally ran during the summer, I paid no attention because, 1. I didn’t have HBO (being a no-frills indie TV writer, premium channels weren’t in the budget) and 2. Six Feet Under was created by American Beauty screenwriter Alan Ball, an over-rated Oscar movie that bored me to—they’re just going to keep coming—death. How was I to know it would become the hottest HBO property since The Sopranos? A dark comedy about a dysfunctional-family-run funeral home? Even for a channel that hosted porn (G-String Divas) and snuff forensics (Autopsy) posing as documentaries, 6FU seemed—once more, with feeling—dead in the water.
Now, as a nationally syndicated TV writer with the power to harass networks and piss off people outside of my own area code, armed with both publicist-furnished refresher tapes and “access” to HBO (that’s all I’m sayin’), I’m proudly arriving late to the party (wake?) and proclaiming Six Feet Under one of my favorite “new” shows. The odd perception that people who subscribe to HBO are somehow “smarter” than regular folks aside—shelling out extra monthly cash for a smidgen of cool original programming and 20 re-airings of Turk 182! is not smart—I feel like I’m in pretty good company. The question is, do these other viewers share my sick sense of humor, or do they just like seeing dead people?
Could be the latter—how else to explain the insane popularity of a stiff-populated show like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (CBS, Thursdays), one of the highest-rated dramas on television? While it does involve similarly slick cinematography and cutting up plenty of cadavers, there’s a school of thought that CSI is a “chick show,” because it engages the viewer in forensics analysis along with the investigators, like they’re helping to solve the crime, too. Likewise, CSI is strangely short (in traditional network cop-show terms) on shootouts, shout-downs and strip-club scenes—and it’s set in Las Vegas, fergawdsakes! They have strip clubs in Starbucks there, don’t they? Or vice-versa?
Why millions more people would rather watch “nerd squad” criminalists Gil Grissom (William Peterson) and Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) poke around for telltale toenails in the dark on Thursdays than tune in to Will & Grace, Charmed or WWF Smackdown really comes back to the corpses. You like seeing dead bodies, admit it—c’mon, I will if you will. There’s a certain serenity about a blue-skinned cadaver … OK, never mind.
Put it this way: If every brainless boy toy and bimbette on Temptation Island 2 (as well as the Fox execs who greenlighted that crapfest) were lined up dead on the beach for the show’s finale, it would absolutely—last one, promise—kill in the ratings. Merry Xmas, one and all!